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COVID-19 disinformation and social media manipulation: pro-Russian vaccine politics drives new disinformation narratives

COVID-19 Fake news Infectious diseases Pharmaceuticals Propaganda Misinformation

On 17 July, a press release was posted to the websites of the Luhansk People’s Republic, the pro-Russian self-declared state in Luhansk, Eastern Ukraine. The press release related to a supposed US COVID-19 vaccine trial that had been conducted on Ukrainian volunteers, including soldiers, in Kharkiv (which is controlled by the Ukrainian Government). According to the press release, of the 15 patients who received the trial vaccine, five were killed, including four Ukrainian soldiers. The press release was published the day after Russia announced plans to mass-produce its own vaccine in a matter of weeks.

The Ukrainian vaccine trial never happened. However, this disinformation narrative—which has clear political, anti-American and anti-Ukrainian Government undertones—has achieved widespread dissemination in multiple languages and across multiple communities, including into a prominent Australian anti-vaccination Facebook group.

This report uses the US–Ukrainian vaccine narrative as a case study to examine how political disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is being laundered into the international information ecosystem.

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